Discover 'The Magick of Matter' with Felix Flicker!

Dearest Scriptum blog readers,

I have a real treat for you today! I was lucky enough to speak to friend of the shop Felix Flicker, who has recently published his first book 'The Magick of Matter'. The book is an enthralling exploration of condensed matter physics, a field that Felix describes as ‘the wizard’s art’ of the physical world. I think it’s best if I let him explain, so without further ado, here is the interview.

Harry Tidby: I was immediately struck by how original it was to frame the discoveries in the book through the lens of learning magic - could you tell me a bit about how this structure came about?

Felix Flicker: Condensed matter is the biggest area in physics, occupying around a third of all researchers -- but nobody has ever heard of it. Why this is has been a topic of discussion throughout the history of the subject. I tried to look at it from the other direction: why are we excited to hear about topics such as black holes and superstrings? The answer I came to is that those topics have an essential magic to them which doesn't need explaining. I tried to think what the magic is which physicists see in condensed matter.

By the way, Scriptum played a vital role in this. Early on in the writing I thought I'd better work out what I actually mean by 'magic'. So I visited Scriptum and commissioned a magic journal, in which I could note down magical things as I saw them. With time I came to see that magic is the world's ability to inspire. For example, Azeem was recently showing me images from the James Webb telescope with great enthusiasm; their ability to inspire was clear. So I'd set out to try to show that matter can inspire in the same way, even if its magic is of a practical, familiar, and therefore more subtle form.

HT: I really liked your analogy of scientific ideas being like jokes - you can only 'get' them once, but by understanding them you can then relay them to other people, and give that that experience of 'getting it'. It lead me to wonder, if there was one piece of information, scientific or otherwise, that you could relay to every person in the world at once, what would it be, and why?

FF: Wait, in a world where the teller makes every person who hasn't got the joke get the joke, does the teller get the joke?

HT: Early on in the book you speak about how important your conversations with both Volker Heine and Phillip W. Anderson were to you both personally and professionally, as they were the two key figures who helped to define what the field of condensed matter physics truly was. Is there anyone working in the field today that you would particularly like the opportunity to meet with?

FF: Fritjof Capra was inspirational to me when I was a teenager. I lent The Tao of Physics to various friends, and eventually didn't get it back. I would say that he was the one person I'd like to meet. But actually I wrote him a letter when I was a postdoctoral research fellow in Berkeley, where he lives, and as a result we met up. We subsequently became friends, and he has been very supportive of me in the writing process. I'm inadvertently advertising Scriptum again -- without writing that expertly-stationed letter the book might once again not exist!

HT: If I'm not mistaken, you wrote the fictional excerpts that begin each new chapter in your book (which are deeply engrossing, by the way). I'd be fascinated to know if you found the processes of writing fiction and non-fiction particularly different, and whether you wrote the corresponding fictional and non-fictional pieces concurrently, or if the fictional sections were a precursor/later addition to the book?

FF: I tried to write the non-fictional book several times over the years. I found the style would come out inconsistently week to week. Then one Christmas, after reading Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea books for the first time, I instead tried writing a piece of fiction. This became the opening passage of the book. From then on the entire book flowed out consistently every time. That piece of fiction bound everything together.

In answer to your other question, I now see writing fiction and non-fiction as essentially identical. Thinking critically about how to structure a novel has even helped me write scientific papers and grant proposals. However dry the subject matter, it will still be read by people, and the same narrative techniques will keep them wanting to read to the end.

HT: Would you ever consider writing a fully fictional book? Would it be informed by your scientific work, or would you try and keep the two separate?

FF: I’ve wondered about that. I might try a fictional book one day. It would certainly have science in it in some form, but perhaps rather obliquely, as in the passages in this book.

HT: Your closing reflections on scientific discovery not being able to be separated from the human environment as a whole were really thought provoking, and rang true with me about all innovations in modern life, as our lives are so inter-connected now that to suggest anything was created entirely independently seems ludicrous. Where do you see the future of scientific research heading, with regards to the lack of separation between environment and research, and further to that, how do you think we can best foster scientific community in a world that seems to be dividing apart more each day?

FF: On the first question, a big part of modern science is working alongside artificial intelligence. We're creating the AI by training it on the problems we're interested in. Presently it's still a selling point of a paper to say that new AI/machine learning approaches were developed to tackle a problem. But at some point I suppose we'll need to start adding our own research code as an author on that same research (a bit like that Gerald the Gorilla sketch on Not the Nine O'Clock News).

On the second question, one important step is making science more open. I think the public should have free access to all taxpayer funded research papers, and this is something that's beginning to happen with moves toward 'Open Access'. In physics we already have the ArXiv (pronounced archive; where anyone can access scientific pre-prints for free. There are moves to make the peer review process more open as well, which I think will help demystify the process for both scientists and the wider public.

In writing this book I hoped to reach a broad audience. Sometimes when people aren't interested in science it's simple preference, and that's fine; but often I think people are told science is not for them. By focussing on the magic of the subject I hoped to provide a different route to seeing that there's something in it for everyone, and that everyone's welcome.

HT: Thank you so much for your time today Felix, this has all been truly illuminating.

Felix’s book 'The Magick of Matter' is available now in our Turl Street shop, or on our website here.

Stay safe and well this holiday season all x